Productive Friction Algorithms

Joe Brown at Wired magazine laments on a subject that I have often thought about.

In pathetic midthirties-guy fashion, I try to stay relevant. I subscribe to Spotify’s curated new-music playlists and delve into the app’s Discover tab. When I find something I like, I add it to a playlist. But here’s the problem: Even though I like a song when I add it, I’m soon tired of every track in that queue. Is modern music that bad? Is it just me? I wonder what a neuroscientist would say …

There are many services that use algorithms to decide what content to suggest or to deliver to us. Facebook uses this to decide which of our friends merit space on our feed. Pandora uses this to decide what music we will like. Amazon uses this to suggest products for us to buy. There are many inputs to these algorithms and they differ among systems. Pandora has its music genome. Amazon uses collaborative filtering. Facebook is secretive, but it seems based largely on our past behavior.

Joe’s lament looks at the long term losses we get from these short term gains. The algorithms have become very adept at giving us content that is similar enough to engage our dopamine cycle and to keep our brains wanting more. We respond positively and are satisfied with the service. We talked about something similar in July.

My Take

But satisfaction is not what life is about. Where is the downright pleasure of the serendipitous discovery of something totally new? Maybe not every day, that would be exhausting. But what if, once in a while, I type in the ingredients I have handy in my kitchen to get a recipe and the system responds with “You eat that all the time. Go to the store, get some X, Y, and Z, and try this out!” This would be disastrous if it was completely algorithm independent. But maybe it could move to the far end of my profile now and again.

Your Turn

Does this resonate with you, or are you happy with the similar and safe? Small changes perhaps, but no big leaps? Or would you like something brand new once in a while?

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